Why Do We Conform?

The pressure to conform is fueled by the need to belong.

Conforming to social norms is a widespread phenomenon that is seemingly natural to human nature. Essentially, to conform is to have the tendency to change our perceptions, opinions, or behavior in ways that are consistent with group norms.

Breaching social norms can be difficult. For instance, research assistants were unable to ask subway passengers to give up their seats — a violation of the norm of acceptable conduct. Some became so anxious that they pretended to be ill to make requests appear justified.

But really, why do we conform?

At the heart of it, we conform because we have a need to belong.

Sherif’s (1936) classic study showed that sometimes we conform to other people’s judgments and behaviors because we are uncertain of what is correct and use others for informational guidance.

Asch’s (1951) classic study showed that sometimes we conform to other people’s judgments and behaviors even when they are clearly incorrect because we do not want to deviate and risk rejection.

Some people become so distressed when they are ignored or excluded from a group, even one that is newly and briefly formed, that they begin to feel numb, sad, angry, or some combination of these emotions. Over time, ostracism becomes a form of social death, making it difficult to cope.

Why does being ostracized hurt so much?

Human beings have needed each other to survive and to flourish over the course of evolution.

“Our need to belong is so primitive that rejection can inflict a social pain that feels just like physical pain.”

— MacDonald and Leary (2005)

In brain-imaging studies, young people who were left out by other players in a three-person Internet ball-tossing game exhibited elevated neural activity in a part of the brain that is normally associated with physical pain. People who are excluded report feeling a heightened sensitivity to pain; in other cases, the experience leads them to feel numb.

The Need to Fit In

Often, we don’t pay attention to our behavior when we are around people. Our unconscious drives us to imitate what others are saying and doing, concealing our individuality in order to fit in. We start to believe what others think or pretend to believe it. The group mood infects our emotions, driving us to take more risks, act irrationally, and perhaps say or do things we would have never said or done on our own.

As soon as we enter a group, the primary effect is the desire to fit in.

The magical social force that affects and binds us to group members through shared sensations creates a deep intense feeling of connection. If we confront this force as outcasts, we tend to feel anxious and left out. Imagine you’ve just arrived at a new workplace.

You think to yourself…

Have I said the right things?

What do they think of me?

As a novice graduate, you’re well aware that you don’t belong because everyone looks so well-adjusted — you start feeling uneasy and alert although there’s no real reason to feel that way.

The larger the group, the bigger the effect.

The force multiplies as the number increases. When we are around a large group of people with shared interests or values, we tend to feel strength and communal warmth from the feeling of belonging. However, the presence of an enemy ignites anger and violence. Not only does the size matter, but also the mix of the people. The collective mood will be altered based on people’s general emotional tendency towards anger or joy.

Essentially, the reassurance that we exist and belong has to come from others by the social force. As social animals, we are continually attuned to the emotions of our group members, aware of their roles within the group, and anxious to fit in.

A Good Reputation

We all care about what others think about us, or else, we would not have put so much effort, time, and money into conveying the right impression by making ourselves attractive or presentable. What’s more demanding than a simple impression is a reputation — impressions that hold up across time and place assented to by third parties that include people we have never met.

We live in a web of social connections that depend on how we’re perceived by others.

Because we are susceptible to judgment from others, we strive for a good reputation. We feel the need to be admired and respected by peers, family members, and even strangers. The possibility of a flourishing life is threatened if we are not judged as impressive or trustworthy because we live in a web of social connections that depend on such perceptions. The reality of a person cannot be directly accessed; thus, we can only have access to how a person appears — the reputation.

There’s no doubt that building a reputation is a contradictory business that is often unfair. We tend to have poor judgments of people, resulting in reputations that are damaging or potentially misleading. More often than not, there’s a gap between appearance and reality. Some people make the mistake of trying so hard to separate appearance from reality. Reality is much more complex and achieved in particular social contexts that talk can only fix reputation in the mind.

In the attempt of fixing a reputation, negative judgments of the person who is trying to manipulate how you are perceived will only reinforce the value of the reputation given to you. Acting in ways that earn a good reputation proves to be more effective.

The Need to Belong

Humans have a fundamental need — that is, to belong.

The need to belong is prevalent in all of our social encounters, particularly in groups where we feel the pressure to conform. We tend to act like completely different people and be emotionally attuned to our fellow group members. Not only do we feel the need to fit in, but we also strive to build a good reputation.

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